Splitting: A Defense Mechanism
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 12, 2022
Splitting is a psychology term that describes an inability to hold opposing thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. Splitting is a defense mechanism unconsciously implemented to tame difficult emotions by simplifying interpretations of chaotic and conflicting experiences. Splitting often accompanies border line personality disorders.
Splitting isn't limited to diagnosed illnesses. We witness splitting in varying degrees in everybody. When cherished beliefs, hopes, or needs dash against the jagged rocks of reality, we often split the present reality from the rest of our subjective world, lessening the pain of dissonance.
Splitting is a psychological defense mechanisms that lessens discomfort of conflicting states, emotions, beliefs or ideas.
Splitting and Judgment
Often to ease cognitive demand, a person splits others or events into rigid terms of black or white—all or nothing. This distorted way of thinking sees others as good or bad, ignoring human complexity and harshly judging those they dislike and blindly accepting those that they prefer. The practice of splitting neither weighs or considers the mixture of positive or negative attributes inherently present in everything.
Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) miserably fails to integrate the complex dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. This failure of thought interferes with personal development, healthy compassion, and comprehensive understanding of our human condition.
Splitting and Emotions
Another common form of splitting is separating emotions from experience. This practice of splitting has immediate rewards of performing without the burden of distracting emotions. However, over used splitting of emotion and experience leads to disconnection from life giving feelings.
Trauma may lead to practices of splitting. War, violent environments, and abusive homes often lead to splitting to protect against the overwhelming weight of constant fear.
The NeuroAffective Relational Model(NARM) is an advanced clinical training for mental health professionals who work with complex trauma. They place the protective mechanism of splitting into on a continuum of disassociation starting with numbing, progressing to splitting, and ending with fragmentation (2012, location 2425).
"Psychoanalysts call this ‘splitting’– an unconscious strategy that aims to keep us ignorant of feelings in ourselves that we’re unable to tolerate" (Grosz, 2014).
While numbing of overwhelming feeling may serve as an emotional regulation process, repeated splitting of experience and emotion eventually leads to dysregulation, fragmenting life into chaotic chunks of meaningless events.
Just as a coyote with its leg caught in a trap chews it off in order to escape, in attempting to manage early trauma, the organism gives up its unity in order to save itself. Numbing, splitting, and fragmentation create disorganization on all levels of experience. Manageable levels of overload to the organism’s capacity to process are experienced as stress and distress, but when stress and distress become unbearable, the organism manages the overwhelm first by numbing, then by splitting, and finally by fragmenting. These life-saving dissociative processes exact a terrible cost. (2012, location 2427)
Splitting as a Protective Mechanism
Splitting is a commonly implemented defense mechanism. Like other defense mechanisms, it operates beneath awareness. The harmfulness occurs not from simple splitting, which we all use on occasion, but from severe separation of emotions, experience, and perceptions. Splitting becomes problematic when it leads to harmful behaviors.
If splitting helps soothe discomforting emotions so we can perform necessary behaviors for goal attainment, it is succeeding as an adaptive mechanism. When our splitting begins to disrupt life, harm relationships, ignore helpful information, our protective mechanism must be exposed and tamed.
In his classic book Adaptations to Life, George E. Vaillant explains that adaptations that channel rather than block inner life feeling affects were far more helpful (1998). We do better finding mechanisms to fuse emotions and behavior rather than split. The healthy adaptation changes the narrative or perception allowing difficult or conflicting elements to co-exist.
"The ability and willingness to keep two opposing views in mind at the same time are hallmarks of adulthood."
Examples of Splitting
Splitting in Perception:
Splitting of Emotion and Experience:
Flipping of Split Judgments
Splitting interpretations are subject to sudden flips in interpretation. A person completely committed to a religion becomes the harshest critic when they leave. New lovers are flawless until the script flips and they are seen as a demon.
Splitting disrupts are ability to see the complex intertwining of personality traits or characteristics. A church usually has many good and bad attributes. Just because our vision of a perfect institution is shattered doesn't mean everything about the institution is terrible. Just because we notice a flaw in our beloved spouse doesn't invalidate their many other good qualities.
Intelligent evaluations demand we see both the positive and negative in the object being judged. We must be cautious with those that initially see us as flawless for a flip in judgement is inevitable.
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Harmful Impact of Splitting
While moderate splitting can alleviate emotional spirals and keep us on tract, excessive splitting interferes with wellness in a variety of ways. Splitting limits knowledge, invites bias, and hinders intimacy.
Self-destructive behaviors intrude when we only process limited data. A person who splits with absolute judgments, labeling everyone as good or bad, will never establish deep, healthy relationships. We all have plenty of good and bad.
Watch for Dangerous Splitting Behaviors
As all defense mechanisms, splitting occurs unconsciously. We split but believe we are open minded. Being alert to key flags of splitting can help reveal the dangerous practice.
Splits Never Completely Keep Conflicts Apart
Areas unconsciously split never remain separated. Life keeps reintroducing the conflict. We must continually reengage in protective splitting until we courageously face the conflict and create a narrative that integrates the complexity. People that split life and behavior from emotion don't magically discard the emotions, living a fine life of logic. The emotion still exist. Buried emotions emerge in unlikely places, often through physical ailments and broken relationships.
Books on Psychological Splitting
A Few Final Words on Splitting
Defenses get a bad rap. They, however, play a role in mental health. The problem occurs when they become a prominent part of our personalities, preventing healthy interaction with experience and others. Oddly, we like to split defense mechanisms into rigid categories of 'good' and 'bad'.
Like many other wellness strategies, we must mindfully examine our lives, attending to mechanisms that interfere with relationships, knowledge, and growth. If a practice enhances our life, than it is helpful. If our protective practice limits or damages futures than it is most likely unhealthy and must be modified or discarded.
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Grosz, Stephen (2014). The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition
Heller, L.; Lapierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Vaillant, G. E. (1998). Adaptations to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition